SYLVESTER (Lupu Pick, 1923/4?)
Markhax above had posted a question above regarding published screenplays by Carl Mayer-- and their availability-- and I can't believe I forgot to mention this masterpiece of masterpieces, which once was indeed published,complete with preface by Lupu Pick, the film's brilliant director (you catch a glimpse of him in a turn as a Japanese agent in Spione, the guy who gets sexually bamboozled by the blond and commits seppu-ku to atone his failure). I first discovered that the scenario was published as a piece of literature when reading Eisners HAUNTED SCREEN, which was my first introduction to the film itself, and it's glorious images.
It's time we get on the hunt for this utter masterwork's scenario-- if someone comes across a copy or see it for sale will they please contact me in pm? Finally seeing this monstrous film in it's formerly impossible-to-see entirety, with all shots of the umwelt restored to the narrative, has turned my world upside down. All your assumptions about moving camera, no intertitles, what are the primary masterworks of the german silent era... will be turned upside down when this most obscure (it wasn't always this way; in fact reading Eisners book this film seems to be the one with the most ink devoted to it.. though we already see her lamenting in her time that most commercial prints have had the character-less shots of the umwelt removed, a sin, since the film runs 66 minutes to begin with) of silent films is restored and becomes widely available. If it ever is.
This is the second film of the trilogy of Kammerspiels Carl Mayer had written (following the films' forerunner, Hintertreppe, which almost makes a quartet owing to the continuity of chronology and style running tyhrough all four... but Mayer wrote three in rapid succession and intended them all to be collaborations with one man--Pick) for the Rumanian emigre to germany, Lupu Pick. The first was Scherben (aka Shattered, which I also acquired the full hour-plus uncut version of.. comments to come), the second was Sylvester, the last was Der Letze Mann (aka The Last Laugh), which was obviously the more famous of the three owing to FW Murnau coming on during production as director, bringing his innovative cameraman Karl Freund, and of course Emil Janning's coming aboard giving a huge star turn as the doorman... and turning the film into an international sensation. Despite the incredible innovations and technique of Murnau/Freund in this last film, the fact of this film's eclipsing it's two forerunners has created the lamentably, hugely mistaken impression that this is the first or the only film in Germany where the camera was unleashed and became fully mobile, and that this was the first film rendered without intertitles.
The intertitle issue is something I've mentioned many times, and the credit of course goes to Mayer who'd been doing it since Hintertreppe, and continued with it in Scherben, Die Strasse (which has one establishing intertitle, sort of like LAUGH's single intertitle towards the end), Sylvester... by Der Letze Mann it was old news.
But it's the unchained camera issue which comes tumbling down like a deck of cards upon watching Sylvester. Listening to the German nancing among technicians like Carl Boese ("we already moved the camera in the 1920 Golem!", which is semi-true, as there is a tiny dolly-in to the king at court when he issues his decree about the ghetto), or proclamations about Dreyer's/Freund's moving the camera about a bit in Mikael in 24, all are amusing in light of this forgotten film which has probably by-the-stopwatch equal amount of ongoing moving camera (at least once the shots of the umwelt, the greater outside surrounding world, have been restored) as Last Laugh. And again, Laugh is simply an extension of the ideas expressed in Sylvester & Scherben. To see what I mean, imagine a scenario where, let's say for arguments sake, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was the first time cgi was considered to be used effectively in film; and historians stood up and declared the last installment in the trilogy to be the first film where cgi was used, forgetting about The Two Towers, the prior film etc. It's that flat out and egregious.
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Sylvester has been my absolute holy grail for years. Finally getting my mitts on a copy of the complete film, untouched and unedited, running nearly 67 minutes, is just pure heaven for me. I got it from a history prof in France with whom I was connected by a member here, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. Granted the film is badly deteriorated, and may well even represent the final state of the film today, whereby it may never even see the light of day for home video or even cinema or tv broadcast. As far as I know it's not been on tv, and it's never been on vhs. This print literally appears to have been taken from an archive in the middle of the night and put through a telecine machine and placed quietly back without anyone even knowing... it's not projected then videotaped because after the fiilms done spooling video noise-snow erupts. SO it was probably secret, improvised telecine on a rare, deteriorated print, with ancient tints in tact. The probelm is that all areas of shadow have been plugged up into solid blacks thru deterioration, rendering much of the night street scenes, the cemetary scenes, forest scenes, into literal black & white, with no gradients. But still, holy grail...
Like most of Carl Mayer scenarios, the tale is one of utmost simplicity, and the characters have no names (Man, Wife, Mother). This also is perhaps the first film told in real time, like Wise's The Set-Up: the film concerns a strech of time beginning at 11pm on New Years Eve (the english language title of the film), and ending just a few minutes after midnight... and the film runs 66 minutes.
The film begins with the famous quote re Tower Of Babel (Go let us confound them with languages that they may not understand each other, paraphrasing), and plunks us down into the city streets filled with revellers. There are no intertitles beyond that first card. The camera begins moving and drifting down the cobblestone streets, neon, confetti, it goes forward, pans, sometimes even goes in reverse after tracking forward again. Suddenly the motif of the greater world (Umwelt) is introduced... we cut to a deserted, blue-tinted lonely shoreline, waves crashing against the rocks. We jump back into the city, into some low dive bar filled with beatup looking old drunken revelers, We cut back to the street, track along until we come to a revolving door of a high class club (we see Jannings predecessor working the revolving door and welcoming the rich guests), we go inside and see them in their top hats tux and tails. The contrasts continue and we go into a low bar filled with working class folks, and go into the back room and find a happy husband and wife who run the place. Tehy're drinking & enjoying the night. After some more contrasts, returns to the ocean, a forest a cemetary, all deserted & empty, we see at their kitchen window the silouhette of the man's mother, and as the wife catches sight of the image against the frosted frozen glass there's no question that there's not much affection between her & her inlaw.
The night progresses with everyone drinking, including the little family unit which now includes mama who seems to be getting along smashingly with the wife, clearly making the man/bar owner very happy, and punch keeps getting imbibed all around. Continued insertions of these contrasting sections of lit/unlit populated/quiet places inserted against the family drama, with some of the wildest--and most extended-- tracking shots you'll see. Hubby goes out to help tend bar, as his wife falls asleep in the rear kitchen. from the punch. The drunken mother pets the sleeping wife, attends to their baby sleeping in a pram nearby. She drifts around the room, and starts staring at some small framed photos on the wall the man has placed there: one of himself and his wife in an embrace, another of himself and his mom. Something in her short-circuits... she drifts over to the sleeping wife and stands over her with her fist thrust in her face. The wife senseing something wakes up and sees her looming over her looking like she's going to sock her in the mouth.
The mother is drunk and goes off the deep end, and the differences between the two, seemingly kept in check for the night, boil over and erupt into a huge fight which brings the man back into the room to see whats going on. Both women latch onto either side of the man imploring him to get away from this crazy bitch... literally tring to tear him in half and take their half away with them. The two women begin going at it wo-mano-a-womano. Contrasting cuts back to the big impersonal world outside and we explore the world of the revelers, and the world of the natural planet itself, oblivious to this little insignificant, in the greater scheme, drama going on in this tiny bar on this dingy street.
Returning to the fight, the man loses it being torn in two directions and tears himself free from both women and leaves them to duke it out and storms into his room off the kitchen and slams the door behind him. More revelers. Accusations fly between the two women, and the wife begins thinking of her husband and grows concerned, as he has locked the door and wont answer to knocks. Pounding on the door, screaming, imploring him to come out. SOmething frantic in the wifes disposition tell us that this has happened before and that the man has warned that he cannot stand being pushed to this brink repeatedly.
In a wonderfully Carl Mayeresque touch of the odd/sublime/deeply symbolic-meaningful, a happily drunken crowd-column of the bar's patrons come marching to the rear area where this drama is playing out, led by a woozy middle aged man in his cheap new years best, with a gigantic rubber hand placed over his own hand, which he keeps at his forhead in a sublime salute with this fantastically euphoric drunken grin on his face.
Cut back to the streets... we dolly along the stones for awhile, picking out this and that, and we arrive at a clock on the street, at about a half minute to midnight. We begin tracking in slowly at the clockface, slowly until the face fills up the whole screen, which happens precisely at the stroke of midnight.
After celebratory cuts, we cut back to the back room, with the dude with the big rubber hand wobbling as the door to the husbands room has been wedged open, revealing the suicide of the man, who simply cannot stand being placed in this position any longer.
Cut back to the streets, which are emptying out.. litter of streamers, drunken passersby, tooting horns, wearing funny hats. etc. We see the sea again, and we coming down the long neon lit street a horsedrawn hearse coming to get the body of the man. A man in a ball mask helps load it up. More shots integrated with revelers, the streets, shots of a hearse moving across a cemetary, the streets winding down, and a final shot ofthe sea, which irises out... end.
This film, almost more than any other, is Carl Mayer. It reflects his ongoing desire, an obsession really, to move the medium of film along whereby no dialog is neccessary whatsoever, whereby ideas, philosophies, ideas and convictions about the world we live on, can be expressed through images by themselves, and in contrast with one another. If Hitchcock considered silent films to be "pure cinema", i e not interrupted by the business of uneccessary chatter to fill in the blanks for less perceptive/aesthetically acute people, then Carl Mayer was manaically and heroically concerned with finding the purest cinema... Caligari aside, since Genuine (which I like owing to it's forerunner of these latter 'instinct' films) he'd been exploring means and meeting the challenge of rendering the most complex, sophisticated, and often deep yet deeply simple and profound, ideas and feelings, via a deceptively simple means of pure imagery reduced to the richest poetry. Which is the proper word as many will take varied interpretations from a work like Sylvester, which, like the works of Bresson, Tarkovsky et al in later years, operates in the purest of poetic means. The wonderful thing here is this isnt ambiguity for the sake of itself or for the sake of the avant garde... it's ambiguous precisely in the way that the world is ambiguous, that life in the world is ambiguous. Some people walk out of their house, see a succession of images that mean nothing to them. Others walk out and see the mosaic of life images and are moved to the bone, and try to express in some aesthetic form or another their feelings about the way the world has moved them. Rather than create the secondary work inspired by the world that motivates artist, Mayer seeks to create the whole world itself, in a perfectly compacted little nutshell, with no manipulation, no begginning middle and end... to duplicate for the viewer the inspiration he derives from observing the contrasts of simultaneous sadness, joys, obliviousness, fortunes and tragedies all lined up side by side. The way you feel about a work like Sylvester says just as much about you the viewer as it does about Mayer, whose work is completely absent of manipulation-- about as far opposite the cinema of today as can be imagined.